An appreciation of an unsung heroine and a review of her biography
Imagine that, as a female secret agent in Nazi-occupied France, your three closest colleagues have been arrested and are due to face the firing squad tonight. Your one chance of saving them is to present yourself to the Gestapo interpreter, confess who you are, and attempt to bribe him. Now stop imagining and marvel at the preposterous courage of the woman who did precisely that on 17 August 1944.
The agent was Christine Granville, born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbet, in Warsaw, Poland on Friday 1st May 1908 and who survived the war only to meet her death at the hands of one of her lovers in June 1952.
Christine was a truly exceptional individual and Clare Mulley’s biography of her entitled The Spy Who Loved entirely lives up to its blurb by being as engrossing as any fiction. In fact, Christine’s exploits are so breathtaking that if this were a work of fiction it may be dismissed as being unbelievable. She deserves to be as well-known as any wartime legend, and why she is not, must surely be a disgraceful legacy of the two prejudices she faced from day one: she was Polish and she was a woman.
She had to conquer both of those bigotries but, as Mulley points out, once she did so, her achievements were unparalleled.
She was the first woman to work in the field as a special agent for the British, including undercover operations in occupied countries where an agent’s life expectancy was little more than a few months. She fought with a passion, patriotism, determination and courage unsurpassed by any other special agent in the Second World War.
The title of the biography whilst not misleading, is slightly wide of the mark. It’s resemblance to a Bond film title is obviously intended to catch the potential reader’s eye, but Christine’s service was far from glamorous most of the time. It was gritty, impoverished, infuriating and, above all, real. She was a spy and she did love, but she was more loved than loving, with many men, including several of her comrades, competing for her affections. Mulley is adept at describing that attraction. Christine was not exceptional in her appearance, but had several characteristics that conspired to create a particular magnetism. Mulley also doesn’t hold back on Christine’s failings, many of which help to explain her success in her chosen and highly unusual occupation. She could be selfish and belligerent, but that only served to support her single-mindedness. She was fiercely independent and refused to be tied down by red-tape, apparently insurmountable obstacles or, least of all, by a man.
Christine was a wife twice and a lover many more times than that, but she was never defined by her relationship to a man. Christine loved passionately. She loved men and sex, adrenaline and adventure, her family and her country; she loved life, and the freedom to live it to the full.
Christine served in Budapest and in the Middle East. She skied into occupied Poland, and parachuted into occupied France, where she fought in the infamous, but ultimately futile, battle of Vercors .
Although employed by the British Special Operations Executive, her primary affiliation was to her beloved Polish homeland. Unfortunately, this twin allegiance caused suspicion on both sides, complicating her professional life during the war and tragically confused the authorities in the immediate aftermath of hostilities, when her incredible achievements went unreported and overlooked for too long. What made matters worse was that Poland itself – the very reason Britain declared war – was subsequently sacrificed to Stalin and hence, despite the allied victory for which she had fought so selflessly, Christine could not return home. She was eventually awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French, and the OBE and the George Medal by the United Kingdom. Many, including this scribe, think the George Medal should have been replaced by the military, rather than civilian, decoration that she would undoubtedly have received if she’d been male.
The Spy Who Loved is a compelling read. It provides an emotional detox and reality reboot for we who live in the luxury of peace-torn Europe. It’s humbling to reflect on the risks that Christine and her comrades took to secure our safety, and inspiring to marvel at how they found the inner strength to parachute into the life-expectancy of a mayfly. The subject of this study is fascinating in her tenacity, alluring in her individuality, and entertaining in her audacity. Her story is also, ultimately, a tragedy.
Clare Mulley supplies a comprehensive account that is smoothly accessible, well structured, intelligently pitched and thoroughly referenced. She even has the generosity to include an appendix containing theories to address the abiding conundrum of Christine’s career: how she managed to be so devoted to her completing her near-impossible missions and have so many lovers, amid the contraceptive austerity of the 1940s, without getting pregnant.
She sings Christine’s story loud, and so she should. Krystyna Janina Skarbet deserves to be saluted, celebrated, and perpetually loved.
Christine’s defining passion was for liberty: in love, in politics, and in life in its widest sense.
This book formed part of the research for a forthcoming untitled project.